Reviving Lyth Cottage: How Historic Buffalo Is Making A Comeback, One House at a Time

Posted on: December 21st, 2012 by Katherine Flynn 4 Comments

Stephanie Barber, president of the Hamlin Park Taxpayers & Community Association, hands the keys to Lyth Cottage over to Matthew Newton. Credit: David Torke, fixBuffalo
Stephanie Barber, president of the Hamlin Park Taxpayers & Community Association, hands the keys to Lyth Cottage over to Matthew Newton.

Matthew Newton first laid eyes on his dream house while browsing a list of buildings that the city government of Buffalo, NY was selling for $1.

Lyth Cottage was in grave disrepair, but Newton was able to look past the boarded-up windows and broken front steps to the structure’s former glory, when it served as a home for the servants of a terra cotta tile maven, Alfred Lyth, in the late 1800s.

“This was obviously a unique house, far different from all of the other ones,” Newton says. “I didn’t know where it was located really, and then I just decided I had to have it right away.”

Newton acquired the house in 2011 for $1, plus a few hundred dollars in closing fees, under the city of Buffalo’s Urban Homestead Program. Under the program’s requirements, the house must be up to code within 18 months of the purchase date, and Newton must remain the owner-occupant of the house for at least three additional years.

While Newton, a former barista and, more recently, a carpenter, likes the idea that he is taking place in a larger revitalization of abandoned buildings in the city of Buffalo, what was most appealing to him about the project was the lifestyle that went hand-in-hand with bringing an old, decrepit house back to life.

“This is just what it’s all about, me getting a house and some property and doing what I want, working with my hands,” says Newton, who has put around $40,000 so far into restoring the house, getting electrical service and installing water and sewer lines. He’s done most of the work himself, with help from friends and his parents. “I like the idea of the craftsman lifestyle, so I just kind of went for it.”

Exterior of Lyth Cottage, Buffalo, NY. Credit: David Torke, fixBuffalo

Before he purchased Lyth Cottage, Newton was also an avid reader of fixBuffalo, a blog written by fellow Buffalo resident and preservationist David Torke. The blog aims to draw attention to the “poverty of riches” in the city -- that is, the fact that there are more buildings than people to live in them, some of them historic landmarks that date back to Buffalo’s industrial heyday.

Torke has been blogging about Lyth Cottage since 2006, scouting for potential buyers, documenting the house’s history and showing people around the property. He eventually put a padlock on the back door to discourage potential squatters and vandals. He estimates that there are about eight people who have seen houses on his blog and contacted him to help them navigate the maze of city hall paperwork and requirements to acquire the house in question, and that all eight houses would have otherwise probably ended up in the landfill.

According to Newton, the process of acquiring a house owned by the City of Buffalo would have been even more difficult without Torke’s guidance. “He really walked me through the whole process of getting a house,” Newton says. “He kind of knew the process, knew what had to be done when. I don’t know anything about purchasing real estate.”

Torke offers context for the new phenomenon of young people like Newton moving in from the suburbs and breathing new life into the city. “It points to a really interesting sort of reversal of history, where suburban folks are becoming increasingly more interested in urbanism and historic structures that Buffalo has to offer,” he says.

Interior of Lyth Cottage, Buffalo, NY. Credit: David Torke, fixBuffalo

Lyth Cottage is located in Buffalo’s Hamlin Park neighborhood, a local historic district that some local preservationists are hoping will be considered for the National Register. According to Torke’s blog, the cottage is estimated to have been built around 1872, and some of the architectural elements incorporated into the building’s original structure were produced a stone’s throw away at J. Lyth & Sons, the country’s first industrial tile factory. Newton has taken special care to preserve the outside of the building, while altering the interior to make way for a hospitable living space.

Jason Wilson, the director of operations at Preservation Buffalo-Niagara, is hopeful that the residents of Buffalo will continue to take an interest in the city’s historic structures.

“A big developer might not have preservation at his heart,” Wilson says. “These individual homeowners are investing in the neighborhood.”

Newton is still a little in awe of his good fortune. “Buffalo is an incredibly unique place,” he says. “You can buy things for absolutely nothing. A dollar. I like to pretend I’m taking part in some movement, but really, I just wanted this house."

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Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores and uncovering the stories behind historic places. Follow her on Twitter at @kateallthetime.

Local Preservationists, Preservation Magazine, Restoration, Revitalization

4 Responses

  1. Cher@Newburgh Restoration

    December 21, 2012

    What a great story, and great example. Please show the end result. I’d love to see it!

  2. Mike Puma

    December 21, 2012

    Here is a Flickr set of photos from the day of acquisition to just a few weeks ago. He’s made some great progress and the exterior is coming along quite nicely. Keep the Buffalo coverage coming!

    P.S. The NR for the Hamlin Park district should be in early next year for review. I’m in the process of finalizing the draft right now.

  3. Alice Hayes

    December 22, 2012

    Inspirational story! I, too, would like to see the end result.

  4. Merle Kindred

    December 30, 2012

    Great article, Kate! You’ve written about a movement that could hugely impact affordable housing issues: rehab what already exists. Traditional development and building new has such power in our hi-tech world, that it takes conscious effort to think rehab and reskill ourselves to get dirt under our nails and work to craft a dwelling for ourselves out of what’s often superior design and materials from the past. I’d also like to see the finished house.